Ruthless Crusaders end Ballinamallard United's lofty dreams of Irish Cup glory
Tennent’s Irish Cup final: Crusaders 3 Ballinamallard United 0
CRUSADERS don’t do fairytale endings. They turn up in big games and produce the goods.
In the build-up to Saturday’s Irish Cup final, arguably every football fan beyond the confines of Seaview was rooting for rank underdogs Ballinamallard United.
Their run to this season’s showpiece decider was the stuff of dreams.
As a rule Crusaders don’t like popularity contests – and they certainly weren’t going to compete with the Fermanagh men who finished mid-table in the lower division and yet somehow reached Windsor Park after two penalty shoot-out wins over senior clubs Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town.
Leading them was one of local football’s great ambassadors and thinkers Harry McConkey.
The Ferney Park men won the hearts and minds of everyone as the Might Ducks’ supporters travelled in huge numbers to the south Belfast venue.
But Crusaders walked away with the silverware with the minimum of fuss.
After overcoming Glentoran, Linfield, Ballymena United and Coleraine to reach the final, Saturday’s encounter was the easiest of the lot.
Tactically, Ballinamallard couldn’t have set up any better. They were just beaten by a better team who had the edge in most areas of the field.
Jordan Owens punctured ‘Mallards’ cup final hopes as early as the sixth minute when his looping header from a Billy Joe Burns cross evaded John Connolly’s finger tips and nestled into the net.
Two minutes after the restart, Philip Lowry nodded home through a ruck of players to ensure the cup was returning to the Shore Road for the first time in 10 years and he was collecting his fourth winner's medal.
And with his first touch after replacing David Cushley, Ross Clarke thumped home Crusaders' third goal in the 53rd minute after a neat pull back from winger Paul Heatley.
“The two boxes are the truth areas in football and you don’t let Crusaders into the box and we did,” said McConkey.
“It’s impossible to keep them out all the time but we were disappointed with the timing of the goals. Even at 1-0 at half-time I said to the lads this has gone so quickly and it will be behind you before you know it and you’ve got to perform and we have to show people that we want to play and we have to be brave on the ball.
“[But] We popped our balloon which was the very thing we didn’t want to do in both the first and second half.”
The closest Ballinamallard came to breaking down Crusaders was through ever willing front runner Nathan Cashel who saw his clever effort clip the post in the closing stages.
McConkey added: “When we went 3-0 down it could have gone to five or six against a team like that so I’m very, very proud of the players for what they achieved but I’m disappointed because you don’t feel happy at a 3-0 defeat.”
In the first half the ’Mallards defence couldn’t contain the imposing Owens – who was a fitness doubt right up until a few days before the game.
“It’s like taking on Messi,” McConkey sighed in that Owens was completely unplayable in the opening half.
"I don’t want to compare Jordan to Messi but it is that same line of thought. You can plan all you want but you can’t compete with that physicality.”
Afterwards, Stephen Baxter sat beside Owens in the press room and paid a glowing tribute to his big striker as well as heaping praise on long-serving duo Declan Caddell and Colin Coates – the team’s other spiritual leaders.
Joking, Baxter said: “Jordan is still not as good as me, but he’s getting there! The reality is Declan Caddell, Jordan and Colin Coates have been here from the age of 15. I gave Jordan his debut at 16 and said that this lad will go a long way.
“To do what he has done at this football club – together with the other two – what they’ve accomplished in the game is sensational. They are three of the all-time greats. In 50 or 100 years time they will be talked about as the real heroes of this football club.”
Baxter anticipated that Ballinamallard would keep good possession but was confident they wouldn’t get down the sides of his defence. And he was right.
Ryan Campbell, Cashel and St Michael’s Hogan Cup winner Darragh McBrien ran themselves into the ground but Crusaders’ back four were impenetrable.
Defensive pivot and former Crues favourite Richard Clarke kept probing for openings but there no gaps to be found.
There was no dramatic 'Escape to Victory' twist at Windsor on Saturday. The script was entirely predictable.
Crusaders were just too good, too ruthless in carrying out their familiar game-plan.
“We didn’t really challenge for the league title this year,” said Baxter, whose side also annexed the Co Antrim Shield in February.
“We had to make a lot of key decisions around Christmas [to prioritise the Irish Cup]. This was the icing on the cake today. We built the cake for four months, we put the layers on by beating all those top teams and today we put the icing on that cake.”
With European football now assured, courtesy of their cup win, the ‘Mallards will hope to join the Crues in top flight football over the coming seasons.
“We finished fifth in the Championship and are a wee team from Fermanagh with limited resources and we’ve been on the biggest stage in the country,” McConkey said.
“I just wanted to show a little bit more and unfortunately we didn’t do it but you have to give Crusaders credit. They were deserved winners.”
Outside, the Crusaders players were sipping beers on an open-top bus. The party was expected to last quite some time...
Crusaders: H Doherty, BJ Burn, M Ruddy, C Coates, S Ward, P Lowry, D Caddell, J Forsythe, D Cushley (R Clarke 52), J Owens (R Patterson 86), P Heatley Subs not used: S O’Neill, H Beverland, M Snoddy, Ronan Hale, Rory Hale
Ballinamallard United: J Connolly, A Arkinson, J McCartney (R Hume 67), R O’Reilly, M Smyth, R Taheny, R Clarke, C Kelly (S Warrington 79), D McBrien (D McManus 58), N Cashel, R Campbell Subs not used: J Edgar, B McCann, T Harney, M Glynn
Referee: I McNabb
Attendance: 5, 744
Sean Ward (Crusaders)
JORDAN ‘Chicken’ Owens ran Sean Ward close for the man-of-the-match award on Saturday after giving the Crues an early lead. But there were firm nods of approval from everyone inside Windsor Park when Ward's name was announced. You could argue he wasn’t over-extended against a Ballinamallard United attack that failed to penetrate the Crusaders back-line. Ward has had much tougher afternoons, but it was his zealous application to every bit of defending he had to do that was so impressive. Even when the game was in the bag at 2-0, the Crusaders centre back played like it was still 0-0. Kept the Crues back-line high and honest all day, tackled well, intercepted passes, lofted some fine crosses on top of Owens and completely shut out the light on Ballinamallard.